How school buildings are getting smarter

By using smart technology and improving staff training, district leaders have increased the efficiency of school operations

As the world becomes increasingly connected, school districts are harnessing new technologies to develop smart school buildings that are safer and more efficient.

In many cases, district leaders find that investments in cutting-edge technology result in long-term cost savings.

But no single smart school building technology can solve all issues, says Michelle Bradley, superintendent of schools at Lockport City School District in upstate New York. For success, district leaders must also have highly trained staff and clear, open communication with students, parents, teachers and communities.

Here’s how four school districts are harnessing tech to build more efficient smart school buildings.

Achieving comfort with smart school buildings

El Paso ISD, Texas

Aging buildings were creating uncomfortable learning environments in the 14 schools of El Paso ISD in Texas, says Carmen Arrieta-Candelaria, deputy superintendent of finance and operations. Learning had become difficult as students and teachers were distracted by extreme temperatures in classrooms.

After passing a bond that was primarily dedicated to building new schools, administrators also wanted to address classroom environment issues.

Funds were diverted to work on existing infrastructure, including upgrading HVAC systems at seven schools, and repairing and calibrating HVAC systems at seven other schools to prolong equipment life and maximize energy and operational efficiency. Facility automation controls and water conservation systems were installed at all district schools.

Smart school buildings create educational opportunities

When Kenton County School District in Kentucky launched its energy management and conservation program, education was an important part of the puzzle, says Chris Baker, energy systems coordinator.

Every elementary school and middle school has a student energy team, known as E=WISE; members can easily access usage data from their smart school building’s energy management system. Students then use these figures to conduct building assessments to see how much energy is being used.

E=WISE teams present their findings to their schools, and then provide conservation checklists and best practices that everyone can follow.

The district also holds events focused on reducing energy costs, such as “Go Green” week and “No Tech Tuesdays.”

“Automation controls improve the classroom environment through more accurate temperature, humidity and indoor air quality control—ultimately making the facility more comfortable for students and faculty,” Arrieta-Candelaria says.

Metering equipment was also added to allow staffers to monitor energy usage and track the performance of the project. “While energy savings was an important aspect of our program, the primary focus was to increase comfort in our classrooms,” Arrieta-Candelaria says.

The entire project cost approximately $10.8 million and will save the district more than $14 million over the next 15 years, she adds.

Improving security

Lockport City School District, New York

Lockport City School District leaders, like others across the country, focus on protecting students from possible violence. Part of the district’s effort is the use of facial recognition technology that has been approved as an innovative high-tech security solution by the New York State Education Department. The state approval has helped alleviate privacy concerns.

The new security system recognizes faces and objects, classifies threats, and alerts district personnel, says Robert LiPuma, director of technology.

“The system looks for two things—guns and faces—and constantly looks for a match to the objects or faces loaded to a reference database,” says LiPuma. “The technology uses biometric measurements and neuroscience to identify shapes and patterns. It does not see characteristics such as male, female, black, white or Hispanic. Instead, numbers and mathematical equations determine a match.”

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While facial recognition technology presents privacy concerns, the system installed in Lockport schools only identifies images loaded into its database and does not collect or store any information that is not related to a matched threat, LiPuma says.

Facial images loaded into the database are limited to Level 2 and Level 3 sex offenders, employees on administrative leave, anyone prohibited from entry to district property by court order, and any person who is deemed a threat and referred to the district by law enforcement authorities. The security system does not interact with any student or staff information systems, and does not provide access to protected data.

With the ability to scan more than 4 million images per second, the system has an accuracy rate of more than 99.5%. When a gun is identified or a face loaded into its database is matched, the system notifies a human monitor. Confirmation of a gun results in an alert being sent to administrators and law enforcement, and initiates a building lockdown. A confirmed face match triggers only an alert to administrators.

“Studies show that response time is critical in saving lives,” Superintendent Bradley says. “By being alerted that a potential threat may be in a building, problems can be more immediately addressed before they occur.”

The facial recognition system cost about $1.4 million. Lockport leaders expect that it will be reimbursed through a New York State Smart School Bond Act referendum, Bradley says.

Tracking data

Trumbull Public Schools, Connecticut

By tracking and sharing data on energy consumption and costs, Trumbull Public Schools, a district of 7,000 students located in southern Connecticut, has saved $864,000 in under four years.

The district’s energy spending, which averages $2.3 million annually, was nearly twice as much as expected for a district of that size in the area, says Mark Deming, facilities director. In an effort to reduce spending, Deming started with data.

By analyzing data provided by smart monitoring software, leaders at Trumbull Public Schools were able to prioritize and implement upgrades for energy systems in older school buildings.
By analyzing data provided by smart monitoring software, leaders at Trumbull Public Schools were able to prioritize and implement upgrades for energy systems in older school buildings.

“Without historical data, you do not know what your potential is for savings and how to determine what your anticipated ROI should be,” Deming says. “That should be factored when determining what you will spend on your energy conservation projects. In many instances, without this historical data, you could end up spending more on the project and over the components’ life cycles than you can save.”

Trumbull already had software to track maintenance work, so Deming implemented companion energy management software to harness more data.

“The system takes information retrieved directly from utility bills—either keyed by personnel or linked to the utilities—and separates by natural gas, electric, water and oil,” Deming says. “We can report data comparisons based on time of year, on cost or use per square foot, or on cost per occupant, along with anomalies discovered in billing.”

With the district’s energy usage data in hand, Deming was able to prioritize projects for energy-bleeding buildings and determine needs for building update projects and solar arrays. He also used the data to justify his case to district leaders.

“If I put up a bar graph, everyone understands that,” Deming says. “Even if you don’t know energy but you see the trend is dropping and the trend is money, everyone can get behind that and support it.”

The historical data helped to identify where the most savings could be realized, and now serves as a baseline to measure and verify usage and ensure that updates continue to generate the predicted savings.

Managing energy on-site:

Kenton County School District, Kentucky

Some of the schools in Kenton County School District in Fort Wright, Kentucky, were built in 1936, while others are almost brand-new. Mechanical systems, insulation and building designs vary widely.

“We simply cannot treat each building the same way,” says Chris Baker, energy systems coordinator. Instead of setting general standards to run every building across the district, an energy management software program tracks usage by building and allows for automated reporting and on-site tweaking.

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“We wanted to be able to put energy management into the hands of people at the individual schools,” says Baker.

Data access is so easy that even elementary school science students can track how much energy their schools are using.

When the data shows abnormalities or spikes in energy usage, managers can address them quickly. “If we see a school underperforming, we’re able to sit down with the plant manager, look at how they’re managing the program, and make corrections,” Baker says.

Since implementing the smart school building management system in 2005, the district has saved more than $13 million in energy costs, including more than $700,000 in the first year alone.

Nancy Mann Jackson is an Alabama-based writer.

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